BRATTLEBORO — Within the last month, the idea of bringing broadband internet to underserved areas of Windham County through a regional project took a few steps forward.
Last month, the Windham Regional Commission launched efforts to help communities create Communications Union Districts (CUDs) that could provide internet services on a local level.
CUDs - created by the Legislature as part of Act 79, signed into law last year - can borrow money and operate similarly to other municipal districts, such as a water district or waste management district.
The WRC received a $60,000 Broadband Innovation Grant (BIG) from the Vermont Department of Public Service.
The grant provides for technical assistance around creating a Communications Union District in the Windham region.
More than 60 people attended the first regional meeting last month in Newfane.
WRC Senior Planner Susan Westa met with the Brattleboro Selectboard on Feb. 18 to provide an overview of the project.
At the meeting, the board appointed Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland to be its point person in the regional broadband project.
A focus on the unserved or underserved
“This effort is really about developing a feasibility study and a business plan looking at whether or not a community should form a Communications Union District or maybe multiple Communications Union Districts in order to implement fiber-broadband throughout our region,” Westa told Brattleboro officials.
“This is really focused first on servicing those communities that are unserved or underserved; however, all communities throughout the region are able to participate,” she added.
WRC is also collaborating with staff from ECFiber and Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc., which has worked to establish broadband service in rural communities across the United States.
After the kickoff meeting in Newfane, the WRC asked towns interested in participating in the project to write a letter of interest and assign a point person. The commission has also released a community internet survey to collect feedback from the public.
According to Westa, once the survey period closes on March 17, the WRC will write its feasibility study. By the end of April, that study will go to the state for review. After the review, the WRC will work on the business plan portion of the project and plans to complete it by late summer.
To form a Communications Union District, two towns must approve the district through a Town Meeting vote, West said. Additional towns can join into the district through a vote by their respective Selectboards.
Halifax, Marlboro, Whitingham, and Wilmington have all put the question of forming a CUD - the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District - on their respective Town Meeting warnings this year.
Once the district forms, it becomes an entity separate from the municipalities that formed it. The CUD will be run by a board of directors in charge of developing a funding plan.
Westa said grants and other funds are available through federal and state sources. Districts can also use revenue bonds or subscriber fees.
“But it's not connected to the municipality in any way,” she said. “There's no way the municipalities will be responsible for any of the financing.”
Should Brattleboro join a CUD?
According to board member Tim Wessel, Brattleboro is 95 percent covered at the “minimal broadband speeds” level. He asked if Westa knew how the town compares to other communities. And, given its connectivity levels that are better than those in other towns, would it benefit Brattleboro to join a CUD?
Westa said she didn't have that data. She did say, however, that some communities have “very minimal internet access at all” and some have only DSL.
A buildout would go to the most underserved areas first and then move outward into the better-served areas, so eventually every community in the district would benefit, she added.
“I understand that not everyone in Brattleboro is served or that they might want higher speeds,” Westa said, calling it “one reason to participate” in the regional project.
The particular grant the WRC received covers only fiber.
Board member Daniel Quipp asked, given how fast internet technology is evolving, whether the physical infrastructure being created to carry the fiber would become obsolete before it can truly benefit people.
Westa said the project advisers believe that in the most rural areas, fiber will be the next best step for many years.
“The amount of download and upload speeds you can get with fiber are pretty significant,” Westa said.
Quipp then asked whether joining a CUD would leave Brattleboro taxpayers holding the bag if the entity were to go bankrupt.
A CUD functions similarly to a town, Westa explained. The board functions similar to a Selectboard. That board makes all the financial decisions.
The member towns' taxpayers are insulated from the CUD's financial highs or lows, she said.
Moreland echoed Westa saying that state statute makes using property taxes or sales taxes “unwelcome.” The only recourse investors would have would be to take the district's assets.
Moreland said if the town decides to join the CUD, the town attorney will also review the project for risks. Right now, however, there appears to be a big firewall between the CUD and taxpayers, he observed.
Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin expressed concerns about the town participating in regional efforts. She noted that the smaller towns have the greater need, however, Brattleboro pays a per-resident fee to the WRC. The total amount is higher than total assessments in neighboring municipalities because the town's population is higher, she noted.
Therefore, she asked, would Brattleboro's representation on the CUD's board reflect the town's higher population?
“No, I don't believe so,” Westa said.
Years in pursuit of municipal broadband possibilities
Moreland provided background on Brattleboro's involvement in the CUD project.
For approximately two years, the town staff and board have explored creating a municipal broadband system, he said.
Moreland said that in 2018, a library staff member approached the board about the idea. The board asked staff to investigate and last September, he reported his findings to the board, outlining the existing level of service in town and how it compared to other areas of Vermont.
Moreland had also studied other municipal broadband projects in Vermont and Massachusetts. He also looked into state statute and what funding the state would provide for financing such a system.
He said the state's only “allowable method” of public financing was revenue bonds rather than general-obligation bonds, which the town preferred.
Eventually, the board decided to “move forward on two fronts,” said Moreland.
The first path: inform the state that the town wanted the authority to use general-obligation bonds to build out a municipal system.
Town staff sent a letter with their findings and requests for action to a small broadband committee assembled by the Legislature. Members of the committee included the head of the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank, State Treasurer Beth Pearce, and the secretary of the administration, said Moreland.
Moreland added that the committee eventually concluded against allowing general obligation bonds to finance municipal broadband projects.
“So that's where that sits at the moment,” he said.
Second, the board asked staff to participate in regional conversations about creating a CUD.
“It's much more effective for these small rural areas to band together,” Westa said. “It really doesn't make a lot of sense for each town to do it on their own.”